Third-level students are one of the many groups within society who have been forced to make compromises in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Yes, our social lives have been significantly curtailed. But even more costly than that has been the loss of months of in-person teaching – with no clear path to its return.
With colleges due to come back before the end of September, we are still none the wiser as to how many hours of in-person teaching we will have. This level of uncertainty is destabilising, and it makes the prospect of parting with €3,000 for registration fees even less attractive than usual.
Earlier this week, Minister for Education Norma Foley disappointed students by reassuring third-level institutions that they could still charge students full fees this year, despite the inevitability of online learning. If Foley was hoping to ingratiate herself with Ireland’s very hard-done-by cohort of third-level students, she failed spectacularly.
While a more tactful approach might have been for her to express sympathy for them and encourage colleges to be charitable this year, she chose instead to empower institutions to charge the same money for delivering what will undoubtedly be a sub-par learning experience. Trinity has yet to respond to Foley’s statement, but its well-documented reputation for putting commercial interests ahead of student concerns suggests that it almost certainly will charge us full fees this year.
When I decided to come to Trinity, I could never have imagined that my final year would be spent in my bedroom, squinting at slides shared by a lecturer over a Zoom webinar
When I decided to come to Trinity, I could never have imagined that my final year would be spent in my bedroom, squinting at slides shared by a lecturer over a Zoom webinar. It feels like I had tickets to see my favourite band and the gig was cancelled due to coronavirus, but the act has opted to livestream their set instead of giving us all the refund we were expecting. Now, I have lost not only money, but respect for my favourite band.
It will be hard not to feel the same way toward Trinity if it opts to charge us full fees for online learning this year. The romantic plans I may have had to interact more confidently in seminars and lectures this year have been scuppered and I still have to pay €3,000 to watch lectures from home at double speed.
The government will likely tout the Free Fees Initiative – whereby the Department of Education and Skills picks up the tab for tuition so students do not have to – as proof that they’ve got our backs. It’s true that without the initiative, Irish students would face a much heftier tuition bill each year. But €3000 is still a lot of money. I know as well as anyone that it takes many hours of working minimum wage over summer to save this much. With the retail and hospitality sectors still reeling from the cost of lockdown closures, a lot of students struggled to get summer jobs this year, adding yet another complication to their uncertain path back to college this September.
Foley’s statement was followed by a more promising tone from Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, who agreed that registration fees in Ireland are “too high”. While this is welcome, many will see through it as nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by him to get in the good books of the group whose reactions to his work will determine the overall success of his new portfolio.
In light of this, the “good cop, bad cop” routine played by ministers Harris and Foley this week is unlikely to inspire the confidence or goodwill of frustrated students, for whom the pandemic has cost the most formative years of their adolescence. This sentiment was captured by Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Lorna Fitzpatrick, who implored the government to show leadership and enforce an “immediate reduction” in fees.
With the retail and hospitality sectors still reeling from the cost of lockdown closures, a lot of students struggled to get summer jobs this year, adding yet another complication to their uncertain path back to college this September
It remains to be seen how Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU) will respond to these developments. Let us not take the empty words of Simon Harris this week, promising to “look at” the issue of student fees over his term as minister, at face value. Past campaigns, including Take Back Trinity in 2018, have proven just how effective Trinity’s student activist community can be in winning concessions from College.
A 2017 report by the European Commission found that even with the Free Fees Initiative in effect, Irish third-level students are paying the second-highest fees in Europe. This is enough to raise eyebrows even in ordinary times. But with an accommodation crisis in full swing and an impending recession on the horizon, the imposition of full fees on an already-stretched student body is all the more galling. If ever there was a time for College to show compassion to its students, it is the onset of a global life-altering pandemic.